The Surprisingly Interesting History of Electric Cars
Did you know that electric cars have been around for almost 200 years? Surprising, right? In that time they’ve predated petrol cars, celebrated a decade long heyday, attracted fans like Thomas Edison and even started an iconic sports car brand (way before Tesla, you won’t guess which). Join us as we celebrate World EV Day with a dive into the surprisingly rich history of electric cars.
Our story begins in 1828, in the office of a Hungarian inventor named Ányos Jedlik. Now, Ányos didn’t actually build an ‘electric car’ per say, but he did invent an electromagnetic device which he fitted to a small model car that he designed. The device that he designed actually still works to this day and consists of a DC motor, namely stator (which sounds complex), rotor and commutator.
The first full sized electric vehicle followed a little later, in around 1832, and was the creation of a Scottish Inventor named Robert Anderson. Whilst not technically a ‘car’ by today’s standards, Robert’s electric-powered carriage, with none-rechargeable power cells, would have certainly made a drastic change from the horse-drawn carriages of the day.
Following Robert’s carriage quick progress was made and, in 1835, Thomas Davenport unveiled a small locomotive that was powered by the first American DC electric motor. This one’s important because, where the previous inventions were models or small carriages, Davenport’s locomotive was the first practical electric vehicle ever to be conceived.
Aside from the invention of the rechargeable lead-acid storage battery by Gaston Planté in 1859 (and another model electric car) things on the electric vehicle front went a little quiet following Davenport’s locomotive.
That was, until 1884. Two important things are about to happen that will catapult the electric car into the mainstream and on to incredible popularity.
The first of those things happened in 1884 when Thomas Parker built the first electric production car (above) in London that used his own high-capacity rechargeable batteries. That was followed, in 1889-1891, by William Morrison introducing a very simple electric wagon to the USA. It may have been little more than another electrified carriage but it was a raging success.
That success put electric vehicles in the mainstream and made them the preferred method of transport due to their quiet nature, ease to drive and lack of pollutants. In fact, they were loved so much that, between 1900 and 1912, one third of all vehicles on US roads were powered by electricity.
As you can imagine, that success attracted the attention of many notable people, possibly the most important being Thomas Edison. Edison loved electric cars so much that he praised them as the ‘superior mode of transportation’ and quickly began studying better ways to build electric batteries.
On a quick side note, did you know that Ferdinand Porsche started the Porsche brand during this period with an electric car? That’s right, in 1898, Ferdinand Porsche created the Egger-Lohner C.2 Phaeton (right), a vehicle that was powered by hub-mounted motors that drove the wheels.
Following its unveiling, Mr.Porsche worked on his electric wheel hub motor and then, in 1900, he attached it to a new car and supplemented it with a traditional engine, thus creating the world’s first hybrid vehicle. It was called the Lohner-Porsche Mixte. Amazing, right? The Porsche Taycan and Porsche’s range of hybrids have a much longer history that you may have originally thought.
Electric cars enjoyed a heyday that lasted until 1908 when Henry Ford introduced the world to the Ford Model T, otherwise known as the world’s first affordable motor car. Easier to refuel and competitively priced, the Ford Model T was a huge success and it ultimately spelt the end of the electric car’s popularity. The Ford Model T was such a runaway success that Henry Ford had sold 15million by 1927, just 19 years after its release.
Everything went very quiet for the electric car following the Ford Model T. Then, in the 60’s and 70’s, the price of petrol went through the roof … leaving the door open for electric alternatives to reappear. Then, boosting that appeal even more, NASA sent astronauts to the moon ... what did those astronauts drive? An electric buggy, of course.
This perfect storm caused the creation of what has often been referred to as the ‘second generation of electric cars’. New technologies started to appear, batteries started to improve and automakers started to create electric vehicles.
The problem (and one of the main reasons electric cars didn’t take off again) was that the mainstream and Governments didn’t get behind the technology. As you’d expect, oil was still worth its weight in gold and that meant that it had many people defending it.
Unlike the Ford Model T situation, however, this setback didn’t destroy the electric car’s following and development continued regardless.
In 1973, a major breakthrough was made when British Chemist M.Stanley Whittingham invented the world’s first rechargeable lithium-ion batteries … the same batteries that are used in things like your mobile phone and today’s electric cars. Whittingham is referred to as the ‘Founding Father’ of lithium-ion batteries and is arguably one of the most important figures in this entire story.
Just as things started to sound incredibly promising for the electric car, petrol prices begin to fall and, once again, interest waned (Electric cars just couldn’t catch a break). From 1979 onwards, things go quiet once more for our electrified friends.
Then, in 1997, Toyota unveiled the world’s first mass-produced hybrid vehicle, the Toyota Prius. Despite critics (to this day) it helped to spark the electric revolution once again and paved the way for companies like Tesla to appear and for cars like the Nissan Leaf to be unveiled. Helped by environmental factors, the cult following grew into a more mainstream interest and landed us where we are today.
There you have it, the surprisingly interesting history of the electric car. There’s just one thing that we can’t stop wondering about - what would electric cars be like today if the Ford Model T hadn’t been so successful?
It only took 100 years to go from the Wright Flyer’s first flight to the Boeing 747 (a plane that can famously fit the Wright Brother’s entire first flight inside itself), so just imagine what battery technology would be like now if development hadn’t stopped all those years ago … would cars like Lamborghini's Terzo Millennio (above) be a real thing?